Recapping memorable moments of 2013 – the “Prostate and Fingers” gaff

I love this time of year.  The water is warm, the days are long and the whole world seems to slow down.

The change of year provides a perfect excuse to reflect and plan, with or without making accompanying resolutions. I’m one of those people who likes to take a good hard look at the used year before tossing it out and opening a brand new one.

While sentimentality occasionally creeps in, I refuse to let it linger. I certainly don’t subscribe to the “a year is like your virginity” school of thought (you only miss it when it’s gone).

My very favourite things in the media (online, TV and newspaper) at this of year are the “year in review” compilations. All the big events in an acoustically and/or aesthetically pleasing five minute clip or five page spread.

Several of the Australian 2013 recaps included Tim Mathieson’s remark about Asian women doing prostate examinations at a reception at the lodge for the members of the West Indian cricket team in late January.

I wrote this column in the wake of the uproar and thought now would be a good time to share it, in the “reflecting on the year that’s been” tradition…

The Last Words on Prostate and Fingers

So our First Bloke got his fingers burned recently. For those who missed it, during a reception at The Lodge he told the West Indian cricket team: “We can get a blood test for it but the digital examination is the only true way to get a correct reading on your prostate so make sure you go and do that, and perhaps look for a small Asian female doctor is probably the best way.”

The story spread faster than the then-still-burning southern bushfires and flooding northern rivers. It dislodged natural disaster stories from their month-long prime spots and displaced the displaced-person interviews.

Cries such as “discriminatory”, “poor taste” and “potentially prosecutable if Gillard’s anti-discrimination bill were already law” were broadcast far and wide.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to Tim that his light-hearted comment was given the finger. Surely he could have worked out that a sentence incorporating suggestions of sexism, racism and penetration of that particular orifice, delivered at an official function with the PM at his side, would have been better left unsaid.

Then again, I doubt it was scripted or intentional. Ill-conceived attempts at black humour are par for the course when people find themselves in uncomfortable situations, and for most blokes, talking about rectal examinations would definitely qualify as uncomfortable.

Add public speaking, TV cameras and famous international sport stars to the mix, and it’s no surprise that our First Bloke was all fingers and thumbs.

I don’t want to enter into a debate on DRE/PSA testing of asymptomatic men and I’m not going to criticise his ungrammatical sentence construction.

However, I do have a bone to pick with him: his premise. I think Tim has got his facts wrong regarding finger length and rectal examination.

Many female doctors have told me that small hands make digital rectal examinations very difficult. They complain of having insufficient length to reach the superior pole of the prostate.

Many will gallantly try to push as far in as they can, but I expect this process is not a particularly comfortable one for the patient.

I believe long, slender fingers are best suited to prostate examinations. Narrow width for comfort. Long length for maximum reach.

As I have been heard to say on more than one occasion (but never near a cameraman or a prime minister): “Long, thin fingers — good for piano; good for prostates.”

I imagine The Lodge was a rather tense place on the evening of 28 January. If Julia is anything like any other woman whose partner has embarrassed her at a dinner party, Tim would have had to weather quite a storm once the guests left.

In a way, the timing was almost as unfortunate as the comment. Unlike Julia’s, Mother Nature’s fury was finally dissipating. If Tim had made his faux pas a week earlier, the Queensland floods would have washed the story away in minutes. As it was, PM Gillard was forced to go into damage control.

No doubt inspired by the recent sandbagging, back-burning and other efforts by emergency services to save the endangered, Julia knew she would need to reach deeply into her bag of tricks to combat this unnatural disaster.

She did, and in just over 24 hours, pulled out an election. Or at least, an election date.

While she may deny that the two events are linked, I have a sneaking suspicion that Australia’s launch into the longest ever election campaign may have had more than a little to do with an inaccurate espousing of the shortest digits.

First published in Australian Doctor on 15th February, 2013: On prostates and fingers

More fewers and fewer lesses please: politics, education and pedantry

There were many aspects of the recent electoral campaign that disappointed me. I suspect many aspects disappointed you too. I’m not going to talk policies or ideologies in this post, but rather vent about a small, pedantic bee which buzzed around in my bonnet: language use. Not the nauseating rhetoric and three-word slogans, although these were mighty frustrating, but the demonstrations of politicians without a firm grasp on the English language.

The examples are too numerous and depressing to list, but Kevin Rudd using “bunch” as the collective noun for practically everything and Tony Abbott confusing suppository with repository are ones that stood out for me. The latter was great for a laugh… I had fun writing tweets like “It is well established that Tony Abbott is not the suppository (sic) of all wisdom but the big question is, will he be the enema of social justice?”

On-the-fly gaffs can be forgiven, but when an ALP TV campaign advertisement, for education of all things (!!), warned that there will be “less teachers, less opportunities and less programs” under a Coalition government, I felt a rising tide of despair.

Upon awaking to a new Australian government on the 8th of September, I turned my attention away from the election-news-filled Australian media and soothed my pedant’s itch with this highly entertaining piece from the Calgary Herald.

I literally died of laughter, but I’m still here, by Gene Weingarten.
Calgary Herald Saturday, September 07, 2013

Unlike the dearly-loved family member who sent me the link, I’m not a Nazi when it comes to language and grammar. I’m relatively unfazed by the relaxing of rules in informal writing, especially when emailing, texting, tweeting and blogging.

I don’t fervently object to the addition of new words to the Oxford English Dictionary, nor the shift in word meaning over time, even if that results in antonyms becoming synonyms. And while missing apostrophes and the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation sometimes grates, I accept that language is a dynamic and evolving beast.

However, I’m saddened by grammatical ignorance: errors committed without deliberate intent. With a government erroneously uses “less” instead of “fewer” in an advertisement boasting about its educational credentials, I shouldn’t be surprised that increasing numbers of young Australians are blissfully unaware that there is anything incorrect with such sentence construction.

Call me old fashioned, but I support the “You need to know the rules before you can break them” dictim. I apply the same principle to my practise and teaching of medicine:  I tell my students, “Get familiar with the clinical guidelines first. This allows you to make an informed choice whether or not to disregard them under certain circumstances.”

I’m all for a solid foundation – an advocate for anatomy and physiology subjects in medical school, and a focus on the three R’s in primary school.

And in the next  federal electoral campaign I would like to see fewer three-word slogans, fewer “bunches” and fewer ads using “less” instead of “fewer”. But I don’t mind if Tony Abbott adds to his “suppository” of verbal slips – they keep things entertaining.

(In case you’re wondering, my choice to start the last two sentences with conjunctions was entirely deliberate :-))